She’s got grieving all wrong

September 15, 2017

grievingI love Patti Smith and I love her writing style. But she’s a tough cookie, no doubt about it, and tough cookies sometimes lack empathy. Truth.

When a friend sent me Smith’s quote on grief I had to sit with it a while. Here’s the quote:

Grief starts to become indulgent and then it doesn’t serve anyone, and it’s painful. But if it you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people…”

Well. A few things:

She’s right about remembrance. When I talk about the loved ones I’ve lost with people who don’t know them, they DO get a little of the flavor of that person. Of course, if I wrote a book about them, as Smith did about her friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, (Just Kids, which won a Pulitzer and is one of my favorite books) those who didn’t know my loved ones would get even more.

But of course, most of us do not write about our loved ones. So, from the get-go, Smith comes at grief as a writer. Which most people are not. Her writing is also known for keeping a distance from herself. So we don’t learn a whole lot about Smith from her book about her relationship with Mapplethorpe. And even when she writes about the death of her husband, Fred Smith, in her next book, M Train, we get only so far into Smith, herself. She calls the book a roadmap to her life. But is it? She doesn’t let us all the way in. She just doesn’t go there.

So it’s no surprise when Smith reflects impatience with grief and calls it “indulgent” and also that she says it’s “painful” as if that’s a reason to get through it quickly. She just doesn’t go there.

But not so fast.

Grief doesn’t work on a timetable. I can’t even imagine calling someone’s grief “indulgent,” which implies that it’s gone on too long or it’s too much.

And it’s stating the obvious to say it’s “painful.” Of COURSE it’s painful.

Grief asks us to do the hard work of feeling that pain and of working through the process. Maybe it’s the five famous stages or maybe it isn’t. Maybe active grieving takes six months or maybe three years. Or 13. Or 30.  The point is that it is different for everyone.

Smith shows her discomfort with grief, pain, mourning–even FEELING– in that quote.

Now, I don’t doubt that she felt grief keenly when she lost loved ones. But by keeping it at arm’s length and suggesting that we, too, should distance ourselves from grief as quickly as possible, she does us all a disservice.

I still love you, Patti. But I think you’re dead wrong about grief.

Please see our helpful and supportive grief resources and our beautiful condolence gifts at A Healing Spirit. All of these products have been appreciated and complimented by those who receive them.

21 comments on “She’s got grieving all wrong
  1. Well, I guess that’s the point, right? We should allow EVERYONE their own path of grief… without judgment or expectation. P.S. Loved Patti’s book too. But there’s a second thing I want to get off my chest. I agree that she presents a removed persona. And I saw her speak about her book and she was exactly what you would expect. And that’s fine. But why, as a writer is “removal” always rewarded as literary and emotional is denigrated as sappy. I hate that. It doesn’t make you a better writer or connect you to your reader. Just sayin’.

  2. Oriah says:

    I loved MTrain, and appreciate so much of what Patti has offered the world. But the red flag that something is “off” (which is probably to say unconsciously unresolved and resisted) in her attitude toward grief is her use of the word “indulgent.” It reflects our cultural prejudice about emotional journeys that don’t end (quickly) in triumph, our intolerance for that which we cannot control and our condemnation of the soft underbelly of loving- the grief of loss. Why is it “indulgent” to find the courage (and it does take courage) to be with uncomfortable feelings? And why is “indulgence” (if applied to anything other than chocolate cake) the ultimate and somewhat condescending dismissal? Clearly we are all, to some degree, products of our cultural conditioning. I just wish she had not (probably inadvertently to some degree) promoted one of the great weaknesses of this culture: the inability to allow things to unfold in their own time, a lack of faith in how we are made to feel it all, to heal, to be changed in ways that deepen our lives by both joy and sorrow. Thanks for the food for thought Carol. I’d winced when I read the quote- but had not given it much thought until I read this.

  3. Grief is so different for everyone. There’s no right way to grieve. There’s only the way you get through it. It’s different for everyone.

  4. Great, great post. It’s easy for people on the outside to judge how a person handles grief or try to quantify when it’s been “long enough”. But they can’t.

  5. Grief is different for all of us. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. There’s only the way you get through to the otherside.

  6. Barbara says:

    I agree with the majority here that grief is personal. There’s no way to judge how anyone else gets through the process, we all grieve in our own way. There should be no judgement about it, in my opinion.

  7. Theresa says:

    There definitely is not a timetable for grief. We all need to be allowed to grieve in our own fashion and let others do the same. No judgements, just support.

  8. Jennifer says:

    While everyone reacts to grief differently, I feel as if she is pushing grief away and building a wall around herself. One wonders what will happen when that wall gets a hole in it.

  9. Sarah Bailey says:

    I think grief for everyone is different and we have to respect that and let them go through it in the own way. But they have to go through it and not pretend it isn’t happening.

  10. Meagan says:

    Grief is definitely a personal journey. I will process the loss of a person different based on the circumstances of their death and saying that is indulgent would bother me on a huge level.

  11. Well, I guess her mistake was making a blanket statement. If that’s what works for her healing, great, but it definitely won’t work for everyone. Grief and healing are very individual, and we can’t tell someone their way is wrong.

  12. Grief definitely doesn’t work on a timetable. It takes time to go through the grief and healing process.

  13. Pam says:

    Grief is so different for everyone. I think a lot of her quote has to do with our culture towards grief.

  14. I definitely agree. You can’t tell someone how they should grieve and that if they take too long it becomes indulgent. Grief is a journey we have to take on our own, and there is no road map.

  15. Kristi says:

    Grief is such a tough thing to describe. Everyone explains it differently and goes through it in their own way.

  16. Linda Hobden says:

    Grief takes hold of us in different ways and your reaction is not always how you expect to feel. Some people totally go to pieces, others seemly hold it all together – but both are feeling the same but different personalities express themselves differently.

  17. Myrah Duque says:

    Totally agree. I believe that the way you handle grieve is very personal. We all have our different ways, and what makes me feel better might not work for you. But it is definitely something we must go through to move on.

  18. Kelly Reci says:

    Grief is definitely a personal expedition. Everyone’s explains it differently and goes through it in their own way.

  19. Scott says:

    But everyone grieves in their own way. Some take much longer than others. People should be left alone to do it on their own.

  20. Catvills says:

    Grief is not the same for everyone. There is no step by step process on how you can overcome the pain of losing a loved one. I lost my dad 25 years ago, but it still hurts! I don’t think that is “indulgence.”

  21. People sometimes ask how long they will grieve for. There’s no good answer to this as it will be different for each person.

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